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The Message from Hilda Baci

The Message from Hilda Baci

By Olusegun Adeniyi

In a letter dated 17th October 2019, former Zamfara State Governor, Abdulaziz Yari, stated that his N10 million monthly upkeep allowance had only been paid twice since he left office five months earlier. Yari, who is now seeking to become senate president, wrote to his successor, Bello Matawalle, from the ‘Office of the Former Governor’. The letter said: “I wish to humbly draw your attention to the provision of the law on the above subject matter which was amended and assented to on the 23rd of March 2019. The law provides, among other entitlements of the Former Governor, a monthly upkeep allowance of Ten Million Naira (N10,000,000) only and a pension equivalent to the salary he was receiving while in office”.  

Although Matawalle (whose media minders must have leaked the letter which trended on social media at the time) created the impression that he would be different, the past four years have shown that in terms of profligacy, and misplaced priorities, he is probably worse than his predecessor. It is therefore just as well that Zamfara people voted to deny him a second term. But Matawalle is not the issue here. Considering the euphoria that has greeted Hilda Baci’s (yet-to-be-certified) new record for the longest period in a kitchen (cooking non-stop for 100 hours), there is an embedded message that we should not ignore. I picked it from a line in Reuben Abati’s column on Tuesday. He wrote: “Nigerian leaders can learn from Ms Baci how to cook (for) a nation and achieve results. Our leaders know how to eat, but they do not know how to cook.”  

That sums up the tragedy of Nigeria because everybody can eat while it takes effort to cook. On Monday, PUNCH published a story that no fewer than 18 outgoing state governors will retire into lives of luxury with generous pension benefits despite leaving unpaid workers’ salaries and debt obligations totalling N3.06 trillion in their states. “According to data from the Debt Management Office, the debt figure of these states included N2.27tn domestic loans and $1.71bn foreign borrowing”. Yet, the perks to be enjoyed by these outgoing governors (who were listed) “include one duplex in any city of their choice within Nigeria, one sport utility vehicle and a backup car replaceable every two years, an office with four aides, two security personnel and monthly salaries, among others. Each of the four domestic workers will earn N100,000 monthly.”  

In many of the states, the most enduring legacy is a law that compels the people to serve former governors for the rest of their lives. In 2014, the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly passed an executive bill which guaranteed then Governor Godswill Akpabio (now also seeking to be senate president after stints as minister) as much as N200 million annually for life. The law, which only ‘upgraded’ the earlier version signed by Akpabio’s predecessor, Obong Victor Atta, also provides for a former governor and his spouse a sum not exceeding N5 million per month to employ domestic staff and free medical services at a sum not exceeding N100 million per annum as well as a befitting accommodation not below a 5-bedroom maisonette in either Abuja or Akwa Ibom.   

In Lagos State, where the whole madness started in 2007 when Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu (now our president-elect) was leaving office, the House of Assembly in 2016 initiated an amendment to the pension law to accommodate both their speaker and deputy. The bill sought for the speaker and his deputy (after office) a residential house at any location of their choice in Lagos State; jumbo furniture allowance – payable every five years; vehicles, including a pilot car; 10 per cent of their annual basic salary as car maintenance allowance and another 10 per cent as entertainment allowance. The speaker and his deputy, according to the bill, were also entitled to domestic staff including cooks, stewards, gardeners, drivers etc. (who themselves would be pensionable) and free medical treatment abroad for themselves and members of their family as well as police orderlies–all for life! In the wake of the dollar-for-babariga-pockets scandal in 2019, Governor Abdullahi Ganduje quickly signed the law by the Kano State House of Assembly which included their speaker and deputy in the jumbo pension-for-life scheme.  

Unfortunately, this debauchery is not restricted to the political arena. The underpinning philosophy of government in Nigeria has always been about ‘sharing the national cake’ so in practically all spheres there is more emphasis on reward than productivity and service. In January 2013, the Adamu Fika-led Presidential Committee on the review of the reform processes in the nation’s public service submitted its report to President Goodluck Jonathan. “The Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) fixed and allowed the gross amount for salaries and allowances to rise to N1.126 trillion. Of this, salaries took a mere N94.56 billion, while allowances gulped the whole N1.031.65 trillion,” according to the report. “It is certainly not morally defensible from the perspective of social justice or any known moral criterion that such a huge sum of public funds is consumed by an infinitesimal fraction of the people.”  

That summation tells a compelling story about our public service which, as the administrative machinery of government, is responsible for implementing policies. But as I said, this is a problem that has always been with us. Sir Richard Burton, an eccentric 19th century British explorer who acted as Consul to the Bights of Benin and Biafra in 1860 sums up the disposition of the average West African (which can be the average Nigerian) to public service thus: “His beau ideal of life is to do nothing for six days and rest on the seventh”. That perhaps explains why at a time the world is tending towards smaller and more efficient government, what we have in our country today is a behemoth that largely serves its own interest. That point was also underscored in the 2012 report of the committee headed by former Head of Service, Mr Steve Oronsaye. According to the report, one common feature of virtually all the parastatals is the prevalence of high personnel cost as “many of them receive more budgetary allocations for personnel than they require because that component of their budget is usually inflated”.     

Nowhere is the disregard for accountability more evident than in the implementation of the Monetization Policy. No new official vehicle was to be purchased by any ministry or federal government agency under this policy, except with the express approval of the President. 20 years after the policy was introduced, expensive bullet-proof vehicles are still being purchased and rent paid for accommodation of fat cats. On travels, according to the Oronsaye report, “whereas the regulation stipulates the Business Class Ticket for top officials of government, many senior officials have been known to fly First Class in defiance of the regulation”. This lawlessness is even extended to the families of ministers and heads of parastatals, many of whom now travel only by private jets within the country.  

On Monday, the Senate directed the Director General of the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) to return N594 million illegal vehicle allowances to the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federal Government. The resolution followed the adoption of the recommendation of the Public Accounts Committee on the 2018 report of the Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation (AuGF) which indicted the agency. In a nation where the underpinning philosophy of government is that of sharing (and eating) the national cake that nobody cares to ‘bake’, an absence of accountability is what you find in many of our institutions. It is also a general problem that we must deal with. In a period of 16 years between 2005 and 2021, Nigeria spent N13trn on fuel subsidies, according to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha. And we have spent more than half of that amount in the past 17 months! Only a nation that places more premium on consumption than productivity would do that. 

Two months ago, BusinessDay reported that Nigeria’s champagne import volumes increased by 15.3 percent, from 559,088 bottles in 2021 to 644,452 bottles in 2022. “The value also rose by 17.8 percent to £25.3 million last year, according to data compiled by Comité Champagne, a trade association that tracks volume and value of exports from France”, the report stated. “The level of champagne imports into the country has been rising since 2020, when it plunged to a record low of 304,199 bottles from a high of 768,131 bottles in 2014, the data show. That of 2022 is the highest under the President Muhammadu Buhari administration.”  

That is another medal for the outgoing Buhari administration. Interestingly, a year into office in 2016, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed launched the ‘Change Begins with Me’ campaign (who remembers that again?), “to entrench the values of accountability, integrity and positive attitudinal change” in Nigerians.” But by seeking ‘Change’ from the people rather than those elected to serve them, the administration got it wrong from the outset. It was almost like asking us to cook for them to eat, as it has always been. And we can see the consequences of their ‘Change’ in all spheres of our national life today.  

Now back to Hilda Baci whose real name is Hilda Effiong Bassey. The Guinness Book of World Record has released a statement that her efforts are being reviewed and I hope she makes it. I genuinely believe she will. And in case some people are preparing to cook Ewedu and Okro so they could also “enter the Guinness Book of World Record”, this is a rigorous enterprise that requires standing up to cook (no sitting down) non-stop with only five minute of rest per hour. That translates into two hours in 24 hours. And you cannot take any stimulant (coffee or energy drink). So, basically, this is an endurance test in the kitchen. This then leads us to the question, what can we, as a nation, learn from Hilda Baci? 

A period of transition from one government to another offers opportunities for renewal. For us to navigate our way through these hard times in Nigeria, we need exemplary leadership at all levels. A system designed essentially for consumption will not suddenly become productive without institutional change. This will require new rules of the game and several adjustments. What Hilda teaches is that Nigerians need to learn that for us to develop, the national mentality must change from eating to cooking but it must start from the top. Awarding themselves scandalous pensions and feeding fat at the expense of the people will take us nowhere.  

If Hilda’s record is eventually confirmed by Guinness, that means she worked for 22 hours and rested for two hours in one day. The ratio of work hours to rest should also serve as a lesson for all Nigerians. Many of our young people don’t see the correlation between work and wealth. They just want to hammer! But the ultimate lesson is for those in leadership positions. 

On Monday and Tuesday, the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) held a retreat for outgoing and incoming governors. Faculties includethe Director General, World Trade Organisation, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (left); Chief of Staff to the President, Prof. Ibrahim Agboola Gambari, former Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki and Deputy Secretary General of the United Nation, Ms Amina Mohammed who spoke the mind of many Nigerians. “When we fail to deliver for people on their rights and their futures, we erode their faith in power, in politics, in the state. And that results in a loss of trust, in resentment between generations and towards elites; and in greater tensions between groups, cultures, ethnicities and religions” said the UN Deputy Secretary General who advocated that the only way to build a more cohesive nation and a more harmonious world is to deliver “better services, better opportunities, better safety, better government and a healthier environment.” 

I commend the idea behind such introspection by the Aminu Tambuwal-led NGF. But I hope that the right lessons were learnt. In the United States from where we borrowed our presidential system of government, high-level public officials only begin making money after they leave office. That’s when they receive advance royalties for their memoirs. Some also go into consultancies while getting paid for speaking engagements. They don’t exploit the system to award themselves scandalous pensions. Sadly, our governors and other elected public officials hardly retire to academia or the organized private sector of think-tanks or philanthropy. Many of them troop to the Senate, ostensibly so that they can continue to ‘eat’! 

Let me now join other Nigerians in commending Hilda Baci for her feat. She struck the right note when she said that her goal was “to inspire every young girl about the possibility of achieving their dreams” and that with her success, young women across the continent would understand that they have the capacity to break barriers and make lasting impacts. And in preparation for the competition, Hilda partnered a fitness trainer and nutritionist to lose some weight and adjust her diet.  

In the critical period that we are in Nigeria today, that is the sort of sacrifice we need from our leaders at all levels. Conventional wisdom teaches that you don’t eat your cake and still have it, so we know why Nigerians are today hungry. But it’s time to move from the dining table to the kitchen. That shift in mentality requires a new leadership ethos. As we can see from the experience of Hilda, cooking is not easy. But at the end, it is extremely rewarding.  

General Gusau at 80 

Lt. General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau (rtd), who needs no further introduction, is 80 today. No ceremony will mark the occasion because that is the way he wants it. He told me last week that he would most probably render himself incommunicado today so that nobody would ‘disturb’ him. That is typical Gusau, easily one of the most respected intelligence officers ever produced on the continent and one who played critical roles in efforts to dismantle apartheid in South Africa. I have had the privilege of close interactions with the General over the past decade and I value his knowledge, experience, and wisdom. I wish him a very happy birthday, long life, and good health. 

• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on   

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